Monday, February 26, 2007

Money for visitation centers; still need more social workers

$2.5 million added to Boni bill -
Measure doesn't add social workers
Vos, Sarah. Lexington Herald-Leader, Feb. 23, 2007, pg. C3.

FRANKFORT -- A House committee appropriated $2.5 million to improve social worker safety yesterday. The money was added to the Boni Bill, which is named in honor of Boni Frederick, a social worker who was killed last fall while supervising a visit between a toddler and his biological mother.

The money will allow the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to spend $1.8 million on visitation centers for foster children and their biological parents, $500,000 on safety improvements at regional offices and $200,000 on safety devices, such as panic buttons, for front-line staff.

Like the previous bill, the revised one gives social workers access to criminal background checks and requires them to report, and the department to track, threats and violence again them. It also sets up a task force to study the needs of front-line staff.

Neither bill provided money to hire additional social workers.

Katy Mullins, a state social worker in Kenton County, said the new bill, with money attached, was better than the one passed by the committee last week.

"There's more progress that needs to be made," said Mullins, who attended the hearing. "We need more social workers to do this job."

Tom Emberton, the undersecretary of children and family services at the Cabinet, said the change was a step in the right direction. The Cabinet, however, will try to persuade legislators to appropriate more money before the legislative session ends.

"It's not dead," Emberton said. "We're going to continue to push it."

Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher originally had asked for more than $18 million to allow the Cabinet to hire more than 300 social workers and staff and make other improvements. House leadership at first refused to appropriate any money, saying that in a short session, they didn't want to open the budget.

"The actions taken today are a step in the right direction," Fletcher said in a statement, "but they are still short of adequate."

Earlier this week, Fletcher and House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, who is running for governor, exchanged terse words over the matter. Both men have accused the other of playing politics with the bill.

Richards said yesterday he supported adding the $2.5 million this year and more money next year, after a blue ribbon task force, which the bill creates, reports back to the legislature. In addition, the bill gives the Cabinet the authority to use $2.5 million in its current budget to hire more social workers.

Emberton was skeptical that the Cabinet would have any surplus to hire social workers. Richards dismissed that concern.

"You're telling me of an $18.5 billion budget, we couldn't find $2.5 million to hire more social workers?" Richards said. "I think we can."


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